Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 3 hours 25 minutes
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Directed by: Stanley Kramer
Written by: William Rose & Tania Rose
Starring: Spencer Tracy, Edie Adams, Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Buddy Hackett, Ethel Merman, Dorothy Provine, Mickey Rooney, Dick Shawn, Phil Silvers, Terry-Thomas & Jonathan Winters
Some movies are just made for certain generations. IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD seems to be a prime example of this. To the film’s credit, the sheer size, scale, and production values are all impressive. Director Stanley Kramer (who previously helmed more serious fare like THE DEFIANT ONES and INHERIT THE WIND) pushed his available resources to the max in this slapstick comedy. I can appreciate that. There are also highlights of comedy gold, but the film’s massive production also works against it as the epic-length running time is far too long for its own good. There are constant stretches that drag and feel dull. Kramer clearly wanted to flex every bit of comedic talent that he had access to (plenty of big names pop in for cameos) and this comes off as a bittersweet detriment to the film.
On a Southern California highway, a car speeds off the side of the road and crashes. Five men, who all happened to be behind the reckless driver, rush over to see if he’s injured. The dying man informs them that he’s hidden $350,000 (about $2.7 million today) under a “Big W” in Santa Rosita State Park. While the group of travelers initially chalks this confession up as the final ramblings of a dying man, these eight people (three women were left in the cars) quickly begin an “every man for himself” race towards the buried treasure. Planes are hijacked, property is damaged, people are injured, and cops watch in amused bewilderment as these seemingly ordinary folks resort to extraordinary measures to get the cash before anyone else can. All the while, an increasingly frustrated police captain waits to arrest all of them in Santa Rosita.
IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD is a fun movie. The writing does a solid job of connecting these passing motorists into an all-out ludicrous comedic set-up and also brings outside parties into the race as well. By the end of this film, there are far more than eight people looking for the buried loot. The script naturally brings these side players into the mix, with a couple of them being the film’s most memorable characters. The sheer scope of the film relies on jumping from one storyline to another as all five parties (which quickly grows to six, then seven and upwards) scramble to get ahead of each other in various over-the-top ways. However, the five main motorists seem to receive an equal amount of screen time and that seems like a bit of a blunder in terms of storytelling.
There are a couple of subplots that easily could have been shortened and suffered from repeating the same scene over and over again. One specific example comes in Melville Crump (Sid Caesar) and his wife Monica (Edie Adams) spending most of the running time stuck in a locked basement. While there are laughs to be had with these two characters, we didn’t need to see every single step in their constantly thwarted escape attempts. Another issue comes with a “mother-in-law from hell” character (Ethel Mermen) nagging everyone unfortunate enough to come into contact with her. She’s far more annoying than she is funny.
Not every subplot is stretched too thin though, as there are some brilliant bits in this otherwise overlong treasure hunt comedy. Though Mickey Rooney and Buddy Hackett’s storyline sputters to get going, once in the air (there is a plane involved), it becomes absolutely hilarious. Out of all the film’s subplots, this scenario seemed like the easiest one to potentially overstay its welcome, but the turns it takes (with a specialist being called in) caused me to grin every time that Rooney and Hackett were on the screen. Other memorable bits include Milton Berle and Terry-Thomas in a heated argument about England vs. America, a greedy motorist who gets in on the hunt (played by Phil Silvers), and Jonathan Winters single-handedly tearing apart a gas station. These moments are definite high points of the film, while the rest treads familiar territory, frequently drags, and occasionally becomes outright boring.
One might attribute this mixed review to me being a young whippersnapper who simply doesn’t understand what made for good comedy in the 1960’s. There might be a kernel of truth here (I wasn’t alive during the original release of this film). However, I’m also throwing a common point of criticism that many modern comedies receive at MAD WORLD. Pop culture references and showing a famous face as a punch line may make for laughs in the moment, but these also negatively age a film over time. This very complaint relates perfectly to IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD. This is a movie that simply shows Jerry Lewis making a goofy face as he drives through traffic or has the Three Stooges pop up as fire fighters for two seconds and do absolutely nothing. These moments may get hearty guffaws out of older folks who recognize every single comedic performer in this film, but they don’t necessarily hold up over time and scrutiny.
Comedy is one of the most subjective film genres out there, because one person may find something hilarious and the other person finds the very same thing to be lame. I fall somewhere in the middle on IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD. I definitely laughed at certain plot threads (Phil Silvers’ greedy motorist, Jonathan Winters devolving from a good person into a violent thug, Mickey Rooney and Buddy Hackett trapped in an out-of-control plane), but the film felt way too long. The finale also takes what might have made for a very enjoyable last laugh and kills it with an over-the-top (one might argue borderline sadistic) extended gag. Overall, MAD WORLD might work for older generations who grew up with a nostalgia for it, but it hasn’t exactly held up well over decades as a hilarious comedic classic.